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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Kyoto art replicated for posterity

Temple, shrine treasures recorded for show, preservation

Staff writer

KYOTO — The painting in the tea room of Zuihoin Monastery in Kyoto's Daitokuji Temple complex transports the viewer to a hill overlooking Lake Biwa 450 years ago.

News photo
Shigetoku Tachibana, head priest of Kitano Tenman-gu Shrine in Kamikyo Ward, Kyoto, compares a replica (front) of the "Unryuzu" ("Dragon Amid Clouds") screen with the original.

Farmers till the fields, women beat their laundry against rocks and fishermen row out into the mist.

Never mind that the brush painting is actually a printout from a Hewlett-Packard printer.

The digital version came from photos of the original "fusuma" (sliding door) work "Landscape of Katata" by artist Tosa Mitsunobu, found in 1988 stored at Seikado Bunko Art Museum in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo.

"It is extremely unusual to have such a detailed picture of 16th century daily life," said Keido Maeda, deputy abbot at Zuihoin in Kita Ward, Kyoto.

Zuihoin lost the original in the wake of the anti-Buddhist movement in the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when farmers and merchants destroyed countless relics in uprisings throughout Japan.

News photo
Hiroto Rakusho brushes gold onto a printout of the 17th century "Fujin Raijin Zu" ("Wind God and Thunder God") screens by Tawaraya Sotatsu in Kyoto's Nishijin district.

"When I sit here before this painting, I understand what the monastery's founder 450 years ago must have felt sitting here. Here, there is peace," Maeda said.

The Kyoto International Culture Foundation, a private body tied with both the central and Kyoto municipal governments, is putting millions of yen into digital reproductions of Kyoto art from the 13th to 17th centuries, hoping to preserve works at 3,500 temples and shrines in their current state.

The idea is to create a digital archive that would accomplish two goals: Capture the originals before they deteriorate further and spread appreciation for Japanese art by lending the reproductions to museums around Japan and the world.

Loaning out the reproductions could also mean extra funds for the slim coffers at temples and shrines.

"Japan has already lost many priceless works of art to air pollution and climate," said Tatsushi Kani, the foundation's president. Japanese art — often made of wood or drawn on "washi" paper — is delicate and especially vulnerable, he said.

"We want the world to know how original and rich Japanese culture is," Kani said.

The reproductions are so good, priests at the end of May dedicated to the gods a printout of the "Unryuzu" ("Dragon Amid Clouds") folding screen at Kitano Tenman-gu — a shrine devoted to Sugawara no Michizane, patron of learning in the ninth century and the god of fire and thunder by Imperial decree.

The original, also stored at the shrine, was drawn around 1600 by painter Kaiho Yusho and is designated an important cultural property by the government.

The drawing shows a dragon snarling and glaring out of a mass of dark brush strokes, ready to leap from its screen and soar into the sky.

While the clatter of coins thrown by students making offerings sounded throughout the shrine, priests gave thanks and offered the printout to the gods.

"For many centuries, the people of Japan have cherished in their hearts both the compassion of the Buddha and gratitude toward the gods," said Shigetoku Tachibana, head priest of the shrine, gazing at the dragon.

"Now with technology we can pass on to future generations the compassion, gratitude and sincerity of the Japanese people today," he said.

The duplicate will be on display for public viewing on the 25th of every month, starting this month.

Graphic artists took 48 different shots of "Unryuzu," roughly 15 times.

At 300 million pixels, the digitalization is accurate enough to differentiate subtle shades of black ink, according to graphic designer Teruji Yamaguchi.

Yamaguchi was in charge of comparing the coloring in the digital data with the original. On the fifth try, when the coloring was perfect, the end product was printed on washi using a 60-inch model HP Designjet 5500ps UV printer.

"Black ink is deceptively simple," said Yamaguchi. "Black can look green or purple in certain lighting, and fade to brown over the centuries."

The total cost of the process was about 5 million yen, said Kani of the Kyoto foundation.

So far, the foundation has presented shrines and temples with replicas of half a dozen culturally valuable works, including a painting of "Immovable Achala," declared a national treasure and enshrined at Daigoji Temple in Fushimi Ward, Kyoto.

In the case of the "Achala" painting, however, technology alone wouldn't suffice.

The foundation had to call in Kyoto artisan Hiroto Rakusho to plate and brush gold on the background of the painting.

That human touch, whether made by graphic artists or traditional artisans, may be what puts something of the soul into the replicas, said Maeda of Zuihoin.

"I like to think that a bit of soul is mixed in this ink," he said. "You need flesh-and-blood creators to make a work more vital . . . the human element is what touches people's hearts."

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